The U.S. Navy has received orders to prepare to deploy its two hospital ships – USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort – in order to relieve pressure on hospitals ahead of an expected wave of Coronavirus patients in the United States.
“We’ve already given orders the Navy, a few days ago, to lean forward in terms of getting them ready to deploy,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday, March 17. The Wall Street Journal first broke the story earlier on Tuesday.
The Comfort, based in Norfolk, Virginia on the east coast, is currently undergoing maintenance, while the Mercy is currently at port at San Diego in the west.
Esper echoed comments made by Lieutenant General Paul Friedrichs on Monday that the U.S. military specializes in treating trauma, not mass cases of infectious disease.
The defense secretary said one option could be to establish clinics adjacent to civilian hospitals so the military could treat trauma cases, taking the burden off doctors and nurses so they can focus on treating Coronavirus patients.
Esper made clear that the U.S. military role combatting the coronavirus will be in support of state-level initiatives to deal with the crisis, in line with the Trump administration’s approach.
The announcement comes one day after a U.S. military-wide ban on travel went into effect for service-members and their families living on base.
The Pentagon is also considering calling up the National Guard and reserves “in that order,” Esper said, emphasizing that the department wants to avoid pulling assets away from states during a potential federal mobilization.
Around 1,500 national guardsmen are currently activated in 18 states, he said, adding the Defense Department is willing to offer active-duty military support as a “last resort.”
The National Guard is currently deployed in New Rochelle, New York, where an outbreak has shut down the town. Maryland’s National Guard has assisted with symptom screening in the state capital. Governor Phil Murphy called up the New Jersey National Guard earlier on Tuesday to assist with logistics and other tasks.
In an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday, Governor Cuomo called on the federal government to send the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to retrofit facilities in New York to be used as makeshift hospitals. Esper said he has not received a formal request yet but that he expects to speak to Governor Cuomo soon.
Cuomo called a deployment of the Corps of Engineers “our best hope,” despite saying even they will not be able to provide enough beds.
Data from the CDC and World Health Organization suggest U.S. hospitals may become drastically overwhelmed with Coronavirus patients within several weeks.
Esper said the military will also make available a total of 15 laboratories capable of testing people for COVID-19, as well as provide 2,000 ventilators and five million N95 face masks from strategic reserves.